Heartworm prevention is a vital part of the wellness care that we provide for dogs and cats and warrants a deeper look to understand why we advocate for year-round prevention in all pets and provide our own pets with this vital, lifesaving medication. Many people don’t understand the heartworm and why it causes so much serious damage to animals. This disease is important throughout the country, but especially in the southeast where the incidence is higher than in colder parts of the country. Luckily, the Companion Animal Parasite Council assembles a large amount of data on parasites in the United States and this allows us to track incidence rates even at the county level.

First, the basics, heartworms are long worms that live in the vessels surrounding the heart. They can be found in dogs, where they are most frequently diagnosed, but also in cats and ferrets. We even occasionally see them in other species, but it is rare. Dogs serve as the reservoir, or carrier of the disease and often develop large numbers of adult worms. These worms grow up and have babies called “microfilaria” which then get picked up by mosquitoes and transmitted to other pets in the area. This is an important point for our neighbors. We all know that the beautiful areas around us, such as Westchase, Keystone, Odessa and Oldsmar are blessed with an abundance of natural standing water. This environment is a perfect breeding ground for the mosquitoes that carry heartworm, and we’ve all probably experienced an evening ruined by these pesky insects.

Once a dog is exposed to the baby heartworms from the mosquito, these worms move throughout the dog’s body and eventually grow into full sized adult heartworms that live in the vessels around the heart. While many people understand that heartworm is a serious condition, some don’t understand the damage that they can cause in the heart. The adult worms start to cause inflammation around the heart very quickly after they arrive, and over time can send a dog into heart failure eventually leading to death.

The latest data from the Companion Animal Parasite Council shows the incidence rate for heartworm in Hillsborough county is 1.66%. This may not sound that high, but it equates to 1 out of 75 dogs. When you consider how many dogs are in your neighborhood or in your friend group, you can see how this number would raise concerns. Unfortunately, as veterinarians, we have seen pets in all stages of this disease and are acutely aware of what it can do to our beloved four-legged family.

When you consider our wet environment that is conducive to mosquito development, the rate of heartworm that we have in Florida, and the severe disease that these worms can cause, it becomes clear why most veterinarians are so serious about keeping patients on heartworm preventative year-round. It is certainly something we believe in at West Park Animal Hospital, and it is something we do for our own pets. Also, many heartworm preventatives also help prevent intestinal parasites like roundworm and hookworm that can be spread from pets to people. If you’re interested in hearing more about heartworm, you can schedule an appointment with our veterinarians by calling (813) 749-6863 or by requesting an appointment through our online portal.